Since U.S. commandos flew into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden two years ago, the Pakistani government (and public) have been increasingly hostile to the use of CIA UAVs to attack Islamic terrorists in the Pakistani tribal territories along the Afghan border. Despite the Pakistani anger for attacking bin Laden's hideout (which was within sight of the Pakistani Military Academy) and the subsequent expulsion of many American military trainers and intel specialists, the CIA UAV based decapitation (kill the leaders) campaign continued. The attacks were halted for a short time after a friendly fire incident in late 2011, on the Afghan border (where American and Afghan troops are often fired on from the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes by Pakistani troops or border guards working for terrorists) but the attacks never stopped. Since 2005, there have been 278 attacks, killing on average about nine people per incident.
Rebuffed by the United States, Pakistan offered a compromise. If the Americans would tell Pakistan where U.S. intelligence had located terrorists, Pakistan would send one of its F-16s and use a smart bomb to do the deed. The U.S. turned this down for several reasons, the main one being that the Pakistanis would "miss" (or simply not be able to find) terrorists who were working for the Pakistani Army. The Pakistanis could also sell protection (from air attacks) to Islamic terrorists. Some terrorists would still die because Pakistan has always been content to see the Americans kill Islamic terrorists who were carrying out attacks against Pakistan. Terrorists who confined their attacks to targets in Afghanistan or India were another matter. From over a decade of experience the Americans know the Pakistani military cannot be trusted, but the Pakistanis deny this and demand more of whatever they can get.
In any event, the American UAVs did make fewer attacks since the bin Laden strike. So far this year there have been only 16, while in 2012 there were 46. There were 59 attacks in 2011, compared to 90 in 2010 (and 46 in 2009, 19 in 2008, 1 in 2007, none in 2006, and one in 2005). Attacked by Predator and Reaper UAVs armed with missiles, the terrorists (al Qaeda, Taliban, and the Haqqani Network) have lost about 50 senior leaders in the last six years, most of them in the last four years. These losses are not only bad for morale at the top but seriously disrupted terrorist activities. The terrorist losses have been severe and include heads of operations, finance, and intelligence. Many of the mid-level commanders were bomb making and terror attack experts. These losses caused additional casualties, as less skilled bomb makers died when their imperfect devices blew up while under construction. New bomb makers have been less skilled because of poor instruction. The loss of operations commanders meant operatives were less effectively deployed and more easily caught or killed. The damage to their intelligence operations meant there was less success in general, especially against the growing American informant network on the ground. The financial leadership losses have meant less income and more reliance on stealing from locals, which makes the terror groups even more unpopular.
The decline in UAV attacks is believed to be the result of secret negotiations, which have occurred sporadically in the past. All Pakistan says publically is that it does not support terrorism (although there is substantial evidence showing otherwise) and that the UAV issue is all about Pakistani sovereignty (also false as the Pakistani government, by law, has limited authority in the tribal territories, the only place where the UAVs operate). In secret the Pakistanis appear to have threatened increased attacks on the trucks hauling NATO equipment out of Afghanistan as part of the NATO withdrawal (that will be complete at the end of 2014). This would mean Pakistani truck drivers would get killed, but that’s another reason for negotiating this stuff secretly. This ability to control Islamic terrorists is unpopular inside Pakistan as well, but it is not as big an issue as American UAVs operating over Pakistani territory.
Meanwhile, Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are openly calling for supporters to help develop methods (electronic or otherwise) to deal with the American UAVs that constantly patrol terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan (Waziristan) and Afghanistan (the Pakistani border area) and constantly find and kill Islamic terrorist leaders with missiles. This has led to the deaths of hundreds of key terrorist personnel and, despite the heavy use of civilians as human shields, few civilian deaths. The Taliban are increasingly frustrated at their inability to deal with this.
Meanwhile, the terrorists are desperately trying to avoid the relentless American UAVs. Earlier this year the Taliban put out an appeal for help via the first issue of “Azan,” an online magazine similar to the earlier (2010) Inspire magazine. Created by American born (and Yemen based) Islamic terrorist Anwar al Awlaqi, the ten issues of Inspire gave wannabe Islamic terrorists guidance on what the main targets should be (according to senior al Qaeda leadership) and practical advice on how to carry out attacks. Anwar al Awlaqi was killed by a UAV launched missile in 2011, as have several other terrorists associated with Inspire. This is why Inspire faded away and Azan showed up. Azan’s first issue was devoted almost entirely to the UAV problem. The terrible suffering of the Holy Warriors because of the relentless UAVs was described in great detail. The implication was that many clever ideas to counter the UAVs have failed and new and more effective ideas are desperately needed.
For a long time the U.S. either denied these UAV missile attacks were going on or refused to comment. The impact of these attacks on terrorist operations and the morale of terrorist leadership eventually led to the United States openly admitting the attacks and confirming that they would continue. They work and are a weapon unique in military history. Wars have always included attempts to gain victory, or at least an edge, by going after the enemy leaders and other key people. This has always been difficult because the enemy leaders know they are targets and take extensive precautions to protect themselves (the “royal guard”, food tasters, and all that). This no longer works when UAVs are involved, and terrorist leaders are scrambling to find ways to avoid this lethal retribution for their wickedness.
Some people agree with the Taliban that UAV operations are somehow wrong. The increased use of UAVs to find, identify, and kill terrorists (or enemies in general) has led many people in the West and in the Moslem world to assert that this is not effective, fair, or whatever. Some call it murder. But war is murder, and for centuries those involved have recognized that going to war is a messy business, especially once you are in the midst of it. In war the survivors quickly learn two things. Those who kill first are less likely to be killed later and those who can kill more of the opponent's leaders will most likely win. Current terrorist leaders may be homicidal fanatics but they know how to count. If the Americans come after them, especially because their organization carried out an attack in the United States that generated a widespread demand from Americans for revenge, the terrorist leaders are dead men walking. The belief is that the Americans will eventually get you, and most terrorist leaders don’t want to be killed. Suicide attack duty is for the little people, not the leaders or their children. So the editors of Azan are going to bat for their bosses.
In the last two decades UAVs, and before that space satellites and high-flying, long endurance recon aircraft (like the U-2 and SR-71), made it possible to find and identify key enemy personnel. But until armed UAVs came along a decade ago, there was no way to quickly act on that information. Many opportunities to kill key enemy personnel were missed because by the time a warplane or strike team showed up the target was gone. Now, with Hellfire missiles (and several other similar weapons) on these UAVs, you can promptly kill what you find. Some pundits find this unsporting, morally indefensible, or otherwise wrong. For military personnel, risking their lives fighting a determined enemy, it's just another way to kill the enemy leadership before the enemy succeeds in killing American troops.
That civilians are also killed is nothing new. During the allied invasion of France in 1944, the several months of fighting required to destroy the German armies in France also left 15,000 French civilians dead in the invasion area and more than that in the rest of France. The Germans did not normally try and hide among French civilians, while Islamic terrorists do. The Germans knew they would be attacked no matter where they were. Islamic terrorists do sometimes get away because of the successful use of human shields (and because the order to fire is not given). This attitude ignores the civilians who die because terrorists escape to keep killing. Thus, in war, you can avoid killing civilians but you do so at the cost of giving enemy personnel immunity that just gets more people killed down the road.
The American UAV campaign against Islamic terrorists in Pakistan (mainly North Waziristan) has led to al Qaeda being rendered impotent by all the losses to leadership and technical personnel (especially bomb builders). Because of this, in the last two years most of the UAV missile attacks were against Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The targets were located through various means, one of the most important being a network of informants on the ground, as well as the UAVs and satellites.
This “decapitation” tactic was successful in Iraq and earlier in Israel (where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000). The Israelis were very successful with their decapitation program, which reduced Israeli civilian terrorist deaths from over 400 a year to less than ten. American troops have used similar tactics many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago, and in 18th century colonial America) but tend to forget after a generation or so.